Turnaround dream turns to nightmare

When Jill Saia was hired to turn around a low-performing Baton Rouge elementary school, she was promised autonomy in decision-making and School Improvement Grant funding to pay for extra staff and a longer school day. Her turnaround dream became a nightmare, she writes on Teacher in a Strange Land.

Two months into the first school year, the new district administration dismantled the “dream team” that had planned the transformation of Delmont Elementary and moved two teachers and an aide to another school. Saia was cited for insubordination for insisting SIG entitled the school to extra staff.

Still, Delmont started to improve. While there was little progress on test scores in the first year, “we did change the culture and climate of the school, increase enrollment, and foster a high level of parental involvement,” Saia writes.

In the second year, she got funding for the extended day program.

We began to turn the corner – more children were reading, asking questions, and flourishing. Fewer behavior problems, more time on task. Children were communicating with each other, with teachers, with staff. They understood what the parameters were for being a student at Delmont, and they rose to our challenges. We planted our vegetable garden, had choir concerts, and participated in the Kennedy Center for the Arts program to integrate arts into the curriculum. We partnered with the local hospital’s health program to host the “Big Blue Bus” every week, which provided medical and mental health care to children and families. We were awarded a sizable grant from a local foundation to adopt a parenting program, and worked with a local university to design a new playground.

But, in November, the superintendent told her Delmont would close after two years of its three-year turnaround plan. Then the board decided to turn it into a K-2 school, then a pre-K center and finally a preK and K school. The final decision was announced in the middle of state testing week.

Students were assigned to a school three miles away, which has an F rating.

. . . because I stood up for my school and tried to keep it open, I was given another letter of insubordination. I was also rated “ineffective” at midyear because of my refusal to change my ratings of teachers to match their pre-identified quota in the value-added system. Their assumption was that if test scores were low, then the teachers must be ineffective.

. . . I was placed on an Intensive Assistance plan. Two months later, I turned in four binders full of data, observations, meeting notes, mentor reviews, etc. My mentor was a local award-winning principal who was part of the original “Dream School” team. Needless to say, she loved Delmont and what we were doing there. . . . After looking at all of my documentation, the director said that it “looked complete,” but then a week later told me that I was still ineffective and would have to wait for his final evaluation.

Saia began looking for a new job, but found “no public school district in this area would hire me because of my track record in a ‘failed’ school.”  After 29 ½ years in the state retirement system, she retired with less-than-full benefits to become dean of instruction at a public charter school about ½ mile from Delmont. Many former Delmont parents have enrolled their children.

Test scores from Delmont’s second turnaround year were “outstanding,” Saia adds. Delmont would no longer be a “failing” school — if it had remained open.

Turnaround … not so much

“Turnaround” schools didn’t turn very far, despite billions of dollars in School Improvement Grant (SIG) money, reports the U.S. Education Department. Two thirds of low-performing schools showed some improvement;  one third got even worse. What Ed Week calls “mixed results,” Andy Smarick labels “disappointing but completely predictable.”

Twenty-five percent of schools made “double-digit” gains in reading and 15 percent in math, which could mean a 10 percent gain from a very low base, Smarick points out.  ”They are schools that went from really, really, really low-performing to really, really low-performing.”

“Single-digit” gains — as little as 1 percent — were reported by 40 percent of schools  in math and 49 percent in reading.

Yes, it’s only the first year, but the first year is the easiest, writes Smarick.

 Historically, schools subject to “turnaround” attempts are so low-performing that improvement efforts often see early gains. These schools are in such dire straits that initial quick-win efforts like instituting a school-wide curriculum or bringing a modicum of order to classrooms will bring about a bump in performance. The problem in the past has been sustaining and building on the gains made in year one. I can’t recall a study of previous turnarounds that showed so many schools falling farther behind after interventions.

Some SIG schools were improving before they received the grants, but then slid back, notes Ed Week.

 Twenty-six percent of schools in the program were on a trajectory to improve their math scores, but declined once they entered the SIG program, while 28 percent of schools where math scores had been slipping began to show improvement after getting the grant. In reading, 28 percent of schools that had been showing gains before SIG actually lost ground once they got the grant. A smaller percentage of schools, 25 percent, had been showing sluggish improvement in reading before the grant and began to improve once they got the funding.

So it looks like a wash — a very expensive wash.

Focus on elementary schools, where there’s a chance of success, suggests RiShawn Biddle on Dropout Nation. Students are too far behind by middle school.

Unless the schools engage in intensive reading and math remediation with students, simply engaging in some curricula changes  (and offering some additional training to laggard teachers) will do nothing to help these kids onto the path to college and career success.

Districts rarely pick SIG’s strongest turnaround model, which calls for “shutting down dropout factories and failure mills, and then replacing them with traditional public and charter schools,” Biddle writes.

Obama touts turnarounds, but where’s the data?

School turnarounds are working claimed President Obama at the last two debates. But where’s the data? asks Alyson Klein on Ed Week‘s Politics K-12.

The Obama administration put $3 billion in stimulus funds into the School Improvement Grant program and required states to use one of four turnaround models. We don’t know if it’s working. ”It seems pretty clear that the administration is sitting on the data until after the election,” writes Klein.

Tinkering, not transforming

Washington state’s share of $3 billion in federal School Improvement Grants isn’t funding significant change at turnaround schools, concludes Tinkering Toward Transformation by the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Education.

. . . with some exceptions, districts and schools in Washington state are approaching the turnaround work in ways only marginally different from past school improvement efforts. Despite the hard work of administrators, principals, and especially teachers, the majority of schools studied show little evidence of the type of bold and transformative changes the SIGs were intended to produce.

Two of nine schools studied took a comprehensive approach to rethinking instruction, analyzing data and improving the school climate, while the rest adopted “a hodgepodge of intervention strategies.”

 

Time alone isn’t enough

Extending the school day without improving teaching won’t make much difference, concludes a new Education Sector report,  Off the Clock: What More Time Can (and Can’t) Do for School Turnarounds.

More than 90 percent of the schools receiving federal School Improvement Grants have chosen turnaround options that call for more class time. Some have added class time by shortening recess and lunch. Others have created after-school programs.

“New designs for extended time should be a part of the nation’s school improvement plans,” (author Elena) Silva concludes. “But policymakers and school leaders must recognize that successful schools use time not just to extend hours and days but to creatively improve how and by whom instruction is delivered.”

The limited research on extended learning time (ELT) shows only small effects on student achievement, the report concludes. “Schools that have succeeded with extended time have done so largely because they include time as part of a more comprehensive reform.” Just doing the same old thing for an extra 20 minutes a day isn’t going to help.

Turning and turning

Turning around low-performing schools isn’t easy, conclude two new Center for American Progress reports.

In A Snapshot of SIG: A Look at Four States’ Approaches to School Turnaround, Jessica Quillin outlines how California, Tennessee, Illinois, and North Carolina have spent federal School Improvement Grants to improve their most underperforming schools.

Melissa Lazarin focuses on charter turnaround efforts in Los Angeles and Philadelphia in Charting New Territory: Tapping Charter Schools to Turn Around The Nation’s Dropout Factories. Only 5 percent of SIG schools, including 11 high schools, have chosen to restart as charter schools. But Green Dot’s takeover of Locke High in Los Angeles and Mastery Charter‘s takeover of Shoemaker Middle School in Philadelphia show the potential.

While charter high school students don’t post higher test scores than comparable students at district schools, they’re 7 to 15 percentage points more likely to graduate and earn a high school diploma, according to a recent RAND report.

Turnaround twist: Principals fired, rehired

Firing the principal is the most popular way for low-performing schools to qualify for federal turnaround money, reports AP. But many fired principals have been rehired, sometimes to supervise the turnaround of their old school or to take over another school that fired its principal.

After Red Lake High School was labeled one of Minnesota’s worst schools, its board moved quickly to dismiss the principal. It didn’t take long for Ev Arnold to land on his feet, though: The same district now pays him the identical salary to oversee the school’s turnaround.

A Red Lake elementary principal who was fired replaced a fired principal at a neighboring district’s high school. The former high school principal was hired to run the middle school.  It’s not just Minnesota, AP finds.

In West Virginia, where 15 schools applied for the grants, eight principals got waivers to stay, two were hired to oversee the turnaround of their former schools, four were reassigned to other jobs in the district and one retired, according to the West Virginia Department of Education. Similarly, four of the seven Nebraska principals affected were hired as turnaround officers for their former schools . . .

The federal government is putting much more money into School Improvement Grants for the worst 5 percent of schools. Districts can close the school or convert it to a charter, but rarely choose those options. More than 90 percent choose to replace the principal and at least half the teachers, or replace just the principal and change the curriculum.